A Once in a Lifetime Experience, Again

By Rob Handerhan
Signal Contributor 

When I first announced that I would be traveling to Tajikistan during the summer of 2013, my family bombarded me with questions about the country’s landscapes, languages, politics and people.

tajikistan
TCNJ student Rob Handerhan volunteered with America’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA) this summer in Tajikistan. (Photo courtesy of Rob Handerhan).

After studying Central Asian history and culture during the previous school semester, I had already fallen in love with a country that I had yet to visit, and I was excited to answer their questions and to share what I had learned with them.

The majority of my relatives had never heard of Tajikistan before. Few were able to pronounce the country’s name and even fewer could locate it on a map. In spite of (or, perhaps, due to) their unfamiliarity with the region, however, most members of my family responded with fear and anxiety; there was something about the “-stan” suffix that seemed distant and unfamiliar to them and their fear of the Muslim World in general was similarly boundless.

When I returned home to New Jersey safe and sound from a beautiful and truly transformative trip that summer, I was prepared to answer the commonly asked question, “was it safe?” with a resounding and heart-felt “yes.”

While in Central Asia, I had the privilege of exploring sprawling deserts and stunning mountain ranges while visiting beautiful cultural, historical and spiritual landmarks. The history that I had been studying in school suddenly became real and three-dimensional.

And it took on a living component as well; during my time in Tajikistan, I met the most incredible people who welcomed me into their country with kindness and hospitality. No history books could compare to the experience of learning about a country first-hand through the eyes of a friend, and I thought that telling my family about the friendships that I made was perhaps the best way to provide a face for their disembodied understanding of the Muslim World.

I wish I could have brought them back fresh, warm bread and tea to make the experience complete!

Putting their stereotypes and fears aside, my family was happy for me, and they congratulated me on this “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” I couldn’t help but notice that inherent in that phrase was the idea that I wouldn’t likely be going back to Central Asia any time soon.

Yet here I am, about to embark on this once-in-a-lifetime experience for the second time!

I feel so fortunate to be returning to Tajikistan this summer with America’s Unofficial Ambassadors. This time, however, I will not be part of a study tour and hopping from landmark to landmark. Instead, I will join a local community. Although I cannot escape the fact that I will still be a tourist in many ways, I am indescribably excited to become engaged in everyday life in Dushanbe rather than staying in a hotel and hitting the highlights of the city as on my previous trip.

I will teach English at the Bactria Cultural Centre and feel strongly about the importance and impact of English language learning.

On my first trip to Central Asia, many of the students that I met expressed a strong desire to work on their English language skills in order to pass TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exams and gain access to new opportunities for studying and traveling abroad.

My greatest anxieties about my upcoming trip involve my hope to be an effective teacher. I want to be able to make a difference in my students’ lives. I have never taught English to non-English speakers so this will certainly be a challenge.

As part of my summer internship, I am also thrilled to be volunteering one day a week at IRODA, the only center for children with autism in Tajikistan. As autism is not a recognized condition in much of Central Asia, IRODA is a completely parent-run initiative, and I hope to be able to effectively expand their reach in terms of accessing international grants as well as garnering international support.

As I build relationships at Bactria and IRODA, I hope to improve my own language skills. I am fortunate to have a background in Persian, and I am looking forward to learning the Tajik dialect in the hopes of being able to communicate even more meaningfully with the people that I meet.

And as much as I cannot wait to become part of my local community in Dushanbe, I am looking forward to bringing my experiences back to my home community in New Jersey in an effort to further combat Islamophobic stereotypes.

As I sit in my room surrounded by everything that I hope to squeeze into my suitcase, I am reminded of one of my last afternoons in Dushanbe when I was gazing out of my hotel window and thinking about how incredibly at home I felt in the city. I am hoping to find that feeling of home once again, and as I imagine what it will be like to look out of my apartment window at the city streets below.

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